Americans lag on exercise


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Don’t be part of the crowd. Identify and overcome your barriers to exercise.

The latest snapshot of Americans’ exercise habits is not a pretty picture. Only 18% of us meet the weekly recommendations for cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening activity. That means five of every six of us don’t measure up.

Current guidelines call for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity (like brisk walking or raking leaves) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (like jogging or swimming) along with two weekly sessions of muscle-strengthening exercises.

Using data from the National Health Information Survey, a telephone survey of randomly selected American households, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 43% of adults met the recommendations for cardiovascular (heart-protecting) activities and 22% met recommendations for muscle-strengthening activities, but only 18% did both. Rates were influenced by age (younger people were more active than older people), education (college-educated folks were more active than those with less schooling), and race or ethnicity (whites reported more physical activity than blacks or Hispanics). The findings appeared in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Numbers from the American Time Use Survey tell a similar story. On any given day, only a small minority of American adults engage in vigorous activity. The most commonly performed activity—after eating and drinking—was watching television or movies, done by 80% of those surveyed. Preparing meals was the most common moderate-intensity activity (26%), followed by gardening or taking care of house plants (11%), neither of which really get your heart beating faster. Barely 5% of those interviewed said they engaged in vigorous activities like swimming, running, or strength training. These findings also appeared in the journal’s October issue.

The disconnect between the amount of physical activity we do and what we should do is unfortunate. Exercise is the closest thing we have to a magic bullet against heart disease and stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, some types of cancer, depression, and a host of other ailments.

There are many ways to add exercise to the week, from several long, sweaty stretches at the gym to 10-minute activity bits scattered across each day. But it’s one thing to say, “Just do it” and another to actually get moving. Cars, labor-saving devices, televisions, and other machines and gadgets—even the design and layout of our communities—subvert the need for muscle power and seduce us into sitting rather than moving. Personal barriers also limit activity. These range from lack of time for exercise to worries that exercise will cause a heart attack or injury and limited access to safe and pleasant places to exercise.

If you want to exercise but have trouble getting started or sticking with it, try taking the Barriers to Being Active quiz from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. It can help you identify some of the things standing in your way.

You don’t have to leap all the barriers standing between you and a more active life. Instead, try putting one foot in front of the other and walking around them.

For more information on exercise and physical activity, take a look at suggestions from Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans by the CDC’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, or Exercise: A Program You Can Live With, a special health report from Harvard Health Publishing.


  1. Miguel | forja

    I enjoyed your post. You already have a fan more.

  2. Ty Brown

    Excersice is very important, and more people need to get out there and be active. I believe that having a dog to excerise with can help you get out there and enjoy your time excerising.

  3. Mas

    Great motivating article here. Our best defense against disease, depression etc is exercise. Building muscle and strength training are key components to a strong defense against disease but also to injury. Consistent exercise leads to strong bones, joints and a healthier cardiovascular system. Again, great article here!

  4. pritesh surve

    I totally agree with this containt…Thank you for sharing this good information….

  5. Sandy

    advantages of exercise

    Love it or hate it, the advantages of exercise remain undeniable.

    These include:

    A healthy heart and lungs – stamina
    A healthy skeleton with strong bones
    An increase in strength, developing lean muscle mass, which burns fat and makes daily tasks easier
    Increases our brain power
    Healthy skin
    Better digestion
    Reduced stress
    Increased emotional well-being, such as runner’s high
    Increased emotional and physical resilience
    Stronger immunity with less susceptibility to infection
    Reduced incidence of chronic disease
    Improved posture
    Increased agility and flexibility
    Reduced incidence of falling
    Reduced incidence of fractures, sprains, or strains from a fall and reduced recovery time from injury
    Increased energy
    Improved sleep

  6. Green Planet Grass

    Exercise is truly very important it does not only promote wellness but can also help us have a good night sleep.


  7. Anonymous

    Well said PJ, however, despite the lack of people exercising compared to those that do, the overall concern should always be moving towards a healthier lifestyle. For example, many people who exercise still smoke, many of them also eat foods that are unhealthy, which to me does not have any benefit. If they are consuming things that are benficial to thewir bodies, to much exercise could do some damage. People need to adopt healthy lifestyles that includes healthy foods, and exercise, which will untimately lead to weight loss.

  8. Peter

    Agree, we as a nation need to be more active. Less health issues means less strain on the health system and more money in our pockets at the end of the day!

  9. Anonymous

    Knowing what to do and how to get things done is usually very important. Naturally, it really is also very important to know the way in which to get it done. But that is not enough by itself; it does not conclude there. Knowing just what exactly NOT to do and what mistakes to avoid is also important. The simplest way to achieve that is to discover what mistakes others have made when seeking lawsuit loans and settlement loans so you can steer clear of making those same mistakes.

  10. richard

    most people dont understand that being ‘in shape’ is a combination of losing fat, AND gaining muscle.

  11. Marc Azada

    I absolutely agree with you. People need to identify their goals in order for them to reach their desired weight.

  12. haan

    “Exercise is the magic bullet against heart disease” – thats my new favourite quote….,

  13. Anonymous

    I am very active and do exercise every morning to keep myself healthy and strong. Or at-least do 30 minutes exercise everyday.

  14. Michael Christopher

    I couldn’t agree more. Americans are fat and overweight. Im a personal trainer in Hudson County NJ and I get interested people all the time saying that they do all this exercise and lead an active life and for the life of them they can’t figure out why they’re overweight, obese, can’t lose weight etc etc. So after an initial workout it’s pretty obvious that they’re not active at all. What they don’t realize is that you’re body gets used to the same activity after you a do it a few times. People will say, oh well I walk outside at lunch everyday…but they walk the same distance with absolutely no intensity. I tell them to take the stairs at their job and you would think I held a gun to their mother’s head. American’s are lazy pure and simple and they always expect a gym or a trainer to reverse overnight what they’ve been doing to themselves for decades. Ain’t gonna happen. So start off with small things like taking the steps instead of using the elevator. Workout with a trainer that demands the best out of you. Cut out 1 fast food meal per week and replace it with a simple protein and veggie. Get more sleep at night. Simple. You’ll start to notice serious improvements to your energy level. Losing weight, staying in shape, and being fit is not thermomolecular science by any stretch of the imagination. it’s just hard to break old habits and fight off peer pressure…which by some standards is way more difficult than thermomolecular science could ever be. Hit me up at Healthy Body Makeover dot com. Take care guys.

  15. Peter

    I totally agree with the author. Consistency is key
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  16. Sean Gunner

    Some disturbing statistics there! I think one of the barriers to fitness is a resistance to going out to exercise, specifically to a gym which is most likely full, noisy and also filled with body beautifuls who, by their very preening presence, make you feel worse.

    I’ve found that having the right exercise equipment at home is a great solution. Firstly, you have no excuse – your gym equipment is right there. Secondly, it is so much easier to put in 20 minutes of exercise between arriving home from work and having dinner or chilling and watching TV. In fact, you can chill and watch the TV programme of your choice, read, listen to your own choice of music, whatever you want whilst getting fitter. Nothing builds confidence more than being fit and feeling good about yourself physically.
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  17. Jonathan

    Great article! Probably the most interesting statistic was the fact that only 18% that were surveyed do both cardio and strength training. I bet if you asked them if both were important the majority of them would say yes. I recently covered the different careers one could obtain with a sports medicine degree in a recent blog post. There is a big trend toward personal training and that should continue since obesity rates are at an all time high.

  18. Anonymous

    Yes our kids have it way to easy. Our mom and dads would want us to come in but we stayed out as long as we could. Now they just want to sit around play games or just do nothing. Seem like the mothers and fathers need to get on their kids a little harder and force them out to get some exercise.

  19. Best Way to Tone Abs

    P.J. it pains me to see so many obese people waddling the around the American landscape. And what really irks me is seeing all these children who are overweight at such a tender age.

    Remember back when we were kids…

    …All we did was grab up a group of neighbor kids and run around outside all day. Too many video games and other distraction keeps children indoors.

    We need a wake up call!

    The only thing you need in your life is health.

    Without it, you have nothing.

  20. Martial Arts Anaheim

    I totally agree. I recently started walking, not driving, my son to school and realized how out of shape I had become. Anyways, now i’m walking 2 miles per day.

  21. Jasmin Espinoza

    For some, exercise is really difficult routine…you outs, gyms, body pains. I’m lazy doing those stuff myself. But one thing I wont be tired doing is to walk around..with my kids in the park. I also walk my therapy dog every morning for 20 minutes which I think is more than enough to get what my body need. So you see..we can have fun, and the same time be healthy.

    No matter how little the exercise can still make a difference. Right?

  22. Alice

    Its not only eating well and balanced but also exercise that lead to better health

  23. Razorama

    Great comments. Exercise is very important for good health.

  24. Adrian

    It’s amazing that we here in America want to be first in everything no matter what. This is not all ways good as we can see in this report. Come on America let get up and move it. And keep the body and mind in motion.

  25. Paul

    Thanks for this great article. What else is their to say, so many great comments.

  26. Chad Waterbury Fan

    OMG this is so true. A lot of my friends gets in the way, imagine that? friends are now becoming lazy and a source of lag. I think it’s the concept. hanging around with some lazy friends is not entirely bad, but you may want to hang out with new ones who are prone to fitness. making friends is better when you get this, but anyhow this is my idea.

    Great post overall, exercise should be a priority, it brings so many good things in life.

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  30. auto style

    yes sure , more Exercise , more health. .

  31. jonhyy

    Couldn’t agree with you more now how to we get the kids outdoors and exercising. I know life long exercise has helped me in many ways at 59 now am still just as active as I was when I was 30 still running and competing.
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  32. Gordon Franson

    It’s interesting, I just finished reading another blog and commented on the fact that gadgets now a days are both good and bad in the world and it is totally dependant upon how they are used just as over exercising can do damage. The real problem is when someone gets on the cellphone or laptop the time seems to go by so fast that they either forgot or ran out of time to keep there body in shape as well as their mind. Like everything you have to be aware and use moderation in using your gadgets and most of all remember the rest of your body needs attention to.

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  33. Saje

    I think it all starts with bad childhood habits. If there’s one thing that is difficult as a parent to do, is get health and fitness to compete with convenience, quick and easy and electronic everything.

  34. Anonymous

    personally I enjoy martial arts as a way of keeping fit, as it has the added benefits of keeping one flexible, coordinated and also keeps the reflexes tuned, so great for us older folk.

  35. Dr. Marika Zoll

    I am an avid researcher. I use alternative medicine to heal my dogs, but also a diabetic husband. He is a type 1, an occurrence as a result of a genetic disorder where his body stores iron, hence his pancreas stopped working. Simply, in my observations of him, whenever, he exercises, he looks better, feels better and takes less insulin at meal time. After years of watching, it cannot be a coincidence. So I stress exercise, even if moderate for a healthier lifestyle. Ways to exercise that are “fun” rather than work is key. I advocate “hula hooping” as one of those techniques. Visit my blog where I advocate this and perhaps buying a hula hoop for the best price. I got excited when I found a hoop that folded up. This revealed more possibilities of taking my exercise tool with me. The hoop can now rest next to the ball in the trunk of my car. Maintaining a hew habit is key. Fad diets and gym makeovers don’t last. BE healthy!
    Dr. Marika Zoll
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  36. tal

    Hi P.J, i think every one should exercise and try martial arts because of the great benefits in the mental and physical aspects.

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  37. Tony

    Couldn’t agree with you more now how to we get the kids outdoors and exercising. I know life long exercise has helped me in many ways at 59 now am still just as active as I was when I was 30 still running and competing.
    Another p[lace to get good infomation about the benfits of exercise is at.

  38. Utah DUI Attorney

    Exercise , I agree is the first and foremost thing that has to be followed with a lot of commitment …In the long run you will reap benefits…
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  39. Jake

    Swimming is undeniably one of the best exercise. Swimming workouts help us to improve our swimming skill as well as our muscles. Thanks for sharing this thoughts. I will keep a copy of this for my reference.
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  40. Gain Muscle Not Fat

    It does seem that people find it more and more difficult to make time to do some sort of exercise every week. But what is even more disturbing to me is the lack of exercise the kids seem to be getting these days.

    This makes me sound old (and maybe I am) but, when I was a kid there was this thing called the Presidential Fitness Test that we all had to take. During the year we prepared to pass it and were required to PARTICIPATE in gym class 3 times a week. This meant soccer, running, basketball, volleyball etc.

    The other day I heard a somewhat overweight teenager say that they don’t have to participate in the sports- they just walk around the track (at their own pace, not a brisk pace) for the entire class period. What happened to learning to enjoy exercise?

    It is no wonder that we as adults are ceasing to exercise if we never learned to enjoy it.

    • Avatar
      P.J. Skerrett

      For kids, running around and riding bikes and wrestling isn’t exercise — it’s just plain old fun. Put activity in a high school gym class, though, and some of the fun gets drained out. The Presidential Fitness Test is now the President’s Challenge. Some schools still do it, but it’s now open to other groups and there’s one for adults.

      Pat Skerrett

    • Anthony Flatt

      Great article!

      I think parents need to do a better job getting themselves an their kids out of the house and involved in some kind of organized sports. Because of crime in our neighborhoods our kids do not get to go outside and play like we did when we were kids. I use to leave the house in the morning and not return until the street lights came on. Our kids are missing that. The next best alternative is to get the into a sport that practices 2 to 3 times a week. My kids wrestle, swim and play soccer. We have a sporting practice or event to go to practically every day.

      Anthony Flatt
      Chairman Team Georgia USA Wrestling

  41. office supplies - health freak

    Exercise is good. Yet so often neglected. Quality of life can be so much improved by exercise. Muscle building, cardiovascular work and even yoga have their benefits. However, other things matter too like the pollution in environment and even more importantly our emotions and thoughts. I know people who smoke drink and eat junk food with no exercise and are still living at 70! It all depends on fate and whatever time comes to exit this world is the time to leave. My advice exercise or no exercise just enjoy life as best as one can.

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  42. Nate

    Hutch 1962, I have certainly found fitness to be a challenge with my kids as well. Life is always a balancing act, but be sure to set aside time to take care of yourself and you will be a better father for it in the long run.

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  43. hutch1962

    I have found that no matter how much exercise I do on a consistent basis, I do not lose weight unless I add the weight lifting component.
    My biggest barriers are 7 and 11 year old kids who want my time and attention.

  44. RentToOwnHomesInFlorida

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  46. Chris

    We need to teach our kids at a young age safe and fun alternatives to living a healthy lifestyle. Alternative transportation is a step we can take to help our environment as well as health as a whole country. We have determined what our problems are and will continue to be unless we stand up and change. Many great people regardless of their lifestyles are opening their eyes to this. I myself ride around on electric bikes to do my fair share of preservation. You can help too. 30 minutes a day on a bike is fun and easy!

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  47. Robert Johnson

    I agree with you all. I feel like many of us make too many excuses why we can’t workout. For example, I don’t have the time I think may be one of the biggest, but if you can dedicate at least 30 min. a day to cardio it can pay big dividends for over all health!

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  48. Tom Taylor

    I agree with Owen, our perception of ‘exercise’ is of hard work, when in fact exercise can be really really fun. I believe if we change people’s perceptions we can get the nation fit and healthy.


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  49. Owen Marcus

    I agree exercise is critical to good health. I suspect one reason we are not seeing more of it is that we need to change the ‘exercise’ we do. Going to the gym is not fun for many, so they don’t exercise. Too many men and women don’t consider just going for a walk, which is great exercise.

  50. Junk Car Towing Mississauga

    Exercise is a great burden for some and formulating excuses just to ignore a small time of exercise is easier than to experience a sweaty physical challenges. People today forget the role of exercise in their growth and health, they solely depend on their vitamins and food diet but exercising plays an important function in maintaining a healthy body. Also because of strict schedules and bulk of stress, sleeping or resting is chosen that draining the body from physical routines.

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